“Energising a new house has become increasingly complex. Gone are the days of simply installing a phone line, running a handful of main cables, fixing a TV aerial and wiring up the doorbell,” says Tanuja Randery, Zone President UK & Ireland at Schneider Electric.
Now, she says, there is an increasing demand for smart technology such as home automation systems, power and data supply solutions, as well as customizable consumer units. However, this trend is putting a strain on construction’s recruitment sector, who are now required to find entirely new skill sets for building technology rich modern buildings.
“The construction sector has historically developed and managed internet and infrastructure as two different domains. However, as the internet of things (IoT) gains pace and the adoption of smart home technologies increases we’ll continue to see a surge in demand for multi-skilled electrical professionals with the skill set and know how to carry out successful IoT-ready installations,” says Randery.
In the UK, under criticism from the opposition party, the Conservative Government is seeking to build one million new homes by 2020. During the current governments first term, the National Housing Federation (NHF) estimated 974,000 homes needed to be built between 2011 and 2014. However, figures from the 326 councils during that period showed only 457,490 were built.
"We haven't built enough homes in this country for decades, and if the gap between the number of households forming and the number of new homes being built continues to grow, we are in danger of not being able to house our children," said Gill Payne, the NHF’s director of policy and external affairs.
It is this situation that makes Randery’s point all the more astute. Not only is the UK striving to house its steadily growing population, it also has ambitions to be a global leader in smart building, clean energy and environmental responsibility. To apply these building and energy standards to a construction sector already behind on housing demand is a challenge, doing it within a skills shortage environment is an even greater test.
“To remain globally competitive and thrive in a modern economy, a greater investment in skills is needed. Britain is facing its biggest skills shortage for a generation. Skilled trades are one of the most sought after roles in the UK, yet employers are struggling to fill the vacancies because demand is outstripping supply,” says Randery.
The UK, it seems, has become very good at setting the bar high but needs to do much more at helping its industries jump.
Last year, for example, the UK government made building information modeling (BIM) level 2 mandatory for construction of all public buildings. Before the mandate came into place the government had already made statements of intent with regard to developing BIM Level 3.
The current government also seems intent on recognizing the importance of the construction sector to the economy. Figures show that manufacturing, construction and service sectors are now all larger than when the Conservative Party came to power at the beginning of 2010. In addition, at the end of 2015, 62.6% of all employment growth has been in high skilled occupations, kick-starting the trend of digital construction.
While such ambitions for their construction sector should be applauded, reaching for the skies without proper support is creating a mounting problem. According to the Employer Skills Survey by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, almost a quarter of all job vacancies last year were a consequence of the skills crisis.
The survey suggests that 43% of vacancies in skilled trades have come as a result of this skills shortage, with electricians making up a significant 13% of these. Moreover, this gap is widening further as more mature elements of the labor force check out of the industry, accentuated by recession led retirement and late career retraining challenges.
It is not just the UK facing these issues. While housing shortages may not necessarily be present, any country trying to "smartify" its new buildings or existing stock will require a construction sector with the skills to do so. Developed economies around the world and others with smart ambitions would be wise to focus on training up the next generation of smart construction workers.
Beyond smart technology’s direct impact on construction, the world surrounding smart buildings and cities is facing similar issues. You only need to glance at an online job board to realize that the world needs more data scientists. Smart things produce data, a useless and costly mound of numbers without a data scientist to mine out nuggets of actionable intelligence.
Whichever way you look, smart technology is changing the world around us, not least for recruitment. Nations, cities and companies around the world will need a variety of new skills to transport us into this smarter world. Major training initiatives need to be put in place to ensure we are not held back by this growing skills gap.
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